A close-up look at 'The New Cold War'

  • 2008-01-30
  • By Steve Roman

CONTRADICTING CONDI: These two fresh books, both with the same title, provide crucial insight into where East-West relations are now heading, and how energy politics and propaganda are the new weapons.

TALLINN - "Ladies and gentlemen, the recent talk about a new Cold War is hyperbolic nonsense. Our relations [with Russia] today are fundamentally different than they were when we all shared the desire to avoid mutual annihilation."

That was the view expressed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Davos on Jan. 23. She might have been reacting to statements by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who was quoted by The Financial Times just days before saying something quite different:
"The question comes up whether a very strong financial recovery in Russia is a stimulus for the new Russian leadership to return to the Cold War," Adamkus said.
Despite Rice's background as a Soviet affairs expert, it's evident that she's missing the point. The key word in "new Cold War" is "new," one that's not fought with nukes, but with oil, gas and propaganda.
For those of us living here in the Baltics, Russia's air incursions, cries of "fascism," cyber attacks, oil cut-offs and general saber rattling leave no doubt that a new Cold War has been brewing for a long time.
Just what it looks like is the subject of two recently-published books, both written by accomplished journalists, and both titled "The New Cold War."

Anyone living in the Baltics who wants to understand the geopolitical fault line on which they sit should consider picking up copies of both of them.

The Great Game
Mark MacKinnon, an award-winning journalist who served for three years as bureau chief for Canada's Globe and Mail, is the author of "The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union" (Random House Canada, ISBN: 978-0-679-31446-2).
When reading through this well-researched work, it's hard not to think of two sides engaged in a chess match, or better still, a game of Risk.

As in a play, MacKinnon starts his book with an introduction of the characters 's prominent figures and groups that are the main actors in the struggle between East and West.
Then he introduces what he calls the "Puppet Masters:" On the one side there's Putin and his supporters, who are trying to export their concept of "Managed Democracy" (read "pretend democracy") to neighboring states they still consider in their sphere of influence. On the other, billionaire George Soros and the United States 's represented by NGOs such as NDI, IRI, NED and Freedom House 's who through their efforts to inject democracy into certain regimes, end up toppling Kremlin allies and blocking Kremlin interests.

The narrative starts with a bang 's literally 's recounting Putin's rise, starting with the apartment bombings in Moscow that prompted Russia to renew its annihilation of Chechnya. More worrying was the bomb in Ryazan that didn't go off; facts surrounding that case suggest the Moscow bombings were in fact an FSB operation.
Then, in a fast-paced, magazine-style narrative full of engaging quotes and anecdotes, it launches into the stories of regime change, or attempted regime change, in states like Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus.
What's more, it reveals how the U.S. was able to support and train indigenous NGOs to, for example, help overthrow Milosevic. Even more interesting is how it  then extracted and packaged those experiences, via its partners in earlier movements, exporting them to the next country on the brink of toppling its corrupt Kremlin-backed autocrat.

Sometimes referred to by both sides as American "democratic technologies," the U.S. training methods rely heavily on Gene Sharp's essay, "From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation," essentially a recipe book for non-violent regime change. The ingredients are getting the  opposition to unite around a single leader, promoting independent media, pouring money into NGOs, paying election observers and conducting exit polls to show that the election was a fraud, and having a dedicated, non-violent youth group ready to lead street protests.

Some of the same leaders from Otpor, the American-funded Serbian student group that was crucial in ousting Milosevic in 2000, pop up again in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia. The book also looks why the process failed in countries like Belarus and Central Asia.
MacKinnon takes a fair and objective view, equally criticizing Putin's hypocrisy in criticizing "foreign interference" in Ukraine's elections, and Americans' hypocrisy in supporting undemocratic regimes in Azerbaijan and Central Asia in cases where oil and military interests are at play.

However it doesn't assign them moral equivalence. Certainly, it points out, it's hard to tell the difference between supporting fair elections and supporting an opposition candidate when fair elections means a win for the opposition. And often its hard to tell whether the local NGOs were using the Americans' money to their own end, or were being used by the Americans for theirs. In the end though, all other factors aside, getting rid of an unwanted autocrat who has to rig elections to stay in power is rarely a bad thing.

Kremlin, Inc.
Where MacKinnon's book covers activity in several countries, Edward Lucas chooses to focus on developments in Russia.
His book, "The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West," (Bloomsbury, ISBN: 9780747595786) is due to hit the international book shops 's including those in the Baltic states 's on Feb. 4.
Of the two books, this one contains far more coverage of recent events in the Baltics, and how they fit into the larger picture of Kremlin activity. That should come as no surprise considering that Lucas, who is now Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist, was based in the Baltics from 1990 to 1994. In fact he was managing editor of The Baltic Independent, one of two newspapers that eventually became The Baltic Times.

The politics behind Russia's reaction to last April's Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn, the ensuing cyber-war, the Nord Stream pipeline and the cut-off of oil to Lithuania's refinery are all put in context.
As is probably obvious from the title, this is definitely a book written with intent: both to expose and explain, in highly critical terms, Putin's operating methods, and to criticize Western businessmen and leaders who are complicit, either through ignorance or greed, in what he's doing.
It's also somewhat frightening. Long-time Russia-watchers know about Putin's crusade against oligarchs (or, arguably, oligarchs in his way) and his crushing of independent media and NGOs, but they might not know about the renewed use of psychological wards as political prisons, the cultivation of Nashi fanatics, and other evidence of a complete slide to totalitarianism.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to how the Kremlin uses its exports of oil and gas 's which are controlled by the Kremlin and its cronies 's both as a cash cow and a weapon.
One of the more fascinating points it brings up is how much Putin's success and popularity relative Yeltsin's has been down to dumb luck. What if, it asks, Putin had come to power in the early 1990s when there were no systems of private property, no capitalist institutions, and when oil was $18 a barrel instead of the $100 it is today?

It concludes with a kind of call-to-arms 's not literally 's encouraging Western countries to  be far more united and realistic than they have been in dealing with the Kremlin.
He also reminds the larger powers, using Estonia as an example, why they need to be supportive of those countries on the front lines of the new Cold War.
"It is all too easy for Russia to think that when it bullies Estonia, it is treading only on the toes of a flyweight ex-colony.

"A central message of this book is that the world's richest and strongest free countries must stand behind these small states now under threat from Russia.
"It may be inconvenient, costly or even painful to do so, but if we do not win the New Cold War on terms of our choosing, we will fight at a time and place chosen by our adversary, and the odds will be tilted against us."
Whether or not the reader subscribes to the "us" and "them" attitude adopted by the author, what becomes clear from reading this book is that Putin, and the Russian population whose opinion he sways, are already looking at geopolitics as a zero-sum game, e.g. either you're with us you're with them. 
To not understand that point is to not understand the current direction of international politics 's a lesson that the U.S. and Western Europe may learn the hard way.